Bill Hunter and “Newsfront”

26 May, 2011 (18:39) | Actors, by Richard T. Jameson, Essays, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

Bill Hunter (1940-2011), a character-acting mainstay of Australian cinema, died May 21. A household name in his native land, he appeared in more than a hundred films and TV episodes, starting with an unbilled bit in the 1957 The Shiralee. He had a twinkle both wry and weary, and a hardpan voice that seemed ordained to pronounce the word kookaburra, though I can’t recall that I ever heard him say that. Key roles? Toni Collette’s father (Bill Heslop!) in Muriel’s Wedding, the Major in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the preposterous Barry Fife in Strictly Ballroom, the gallant escort and longtime worshipper of Terence Stamp’s Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the dentist in Finding Nemo. But above all these, he was Len Maguire, the dogged newsreel journalist in Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978)—the first international hit of the Australian New Wave and the occasion of Hunter’s winning the Aussie equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actor. I loved the movie and I loved Len Maguire. And only part of that was because Hunter—and Len Maguire too—uncannily reminded me of my father as he looked in Len Maguire’s time; Dad had died several years before Newsfront came out. I suppose it was the father connection that led me to assume Bill Hunter was “old,” as a line in the accompanying Newsfront appreciation gives away. Actually, he was only four years my senior. —RTJ

[Originally written as a program note for a University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies film series on New Australian Cinema]

Bill Hunter as Len Maguire (1977)

Likableness is, I suppose, a dubious aesthetic category to propose, but I can’t see any way around proposing it here. Newsfront is one of the most sheerly likable movies I’ve ever encountered, and to ignore that, or somehow scant it, seems shortsighted and also notably unfair to the film. Likableness is not so common—in movies, in people, in general—that we can afford to take it casually. And particularly in movies, with so much technology to keep under control, so much second- and third-guessing going on, so much calculation and selfconsciousness and sweaty deliberation, a sense of unforced geniality is devilishly difficult to come by. Who among contemporary American filmmakers can manage it? The only name that comes to mind immediately is Jonathan Demme, who gave us the supremely sweetnatured and wise-but-not-wised-up Melvin and Howard (which, like Newsfront during its Seattle engagement, went largely unseen). Steven Spielberg sometimes, as in the at-home scenes in Jaws and the little-people scenes in Close Encounters; maybe Paul Mazursky, though he can get pretty icky and shticky. Anyway, it’s a talent, probably a gift, and it’s all too rare.

It’s more, too, than just “being nice.” It involves being tolerant of human foibles, but not to the point of sappiness. It means having an eye for the sharp behavioral detail of the moment, and also an instinct for the rhythms that wrap around all the moments—the comings and goings, learning and growing, living and dying that adds up to the history of a community, a social class, a nation; a chapter in the biography of our species. And just as important as having that instinct for long-term biorhythms is being able to devise their analogues in cinematic terms—to make a movie move in such a way that, once you’ve seen it, you feel you’ve shared much more time with the characters than two hours, and that you’ve done almost as much growing and perspective-acquiring as they have. Yes, that’s it: you have to be invited into the film there to live with those folks for a while. And the filmmaker who won’t give you that privileged time robs you of something, and robs his medium of one of its most glorious opportunities.

Newsfront begins with a 1948 newsreel of Chico Marx coaxing some Australian servicemen into singing “Waltzing Matilda,” and ends with another newsreel image, a koala humping its way up a tall tree trunk—in context, a droll sign of Australia’s belated ascendancy as a member of the community of nations. It’s entirely appropriate that Phillip Noyce’s movie should have been the first great hit of the New Australian Cinema, at home and abroad, for, as Noyce himself observed, it expresses a “national pride we’ve only just acquired. Newsfront is the first Australian film that has rejoiced in things Australian; it’s a celebration that has allowed Australians to feel really good about their country.” Which is scarcely to say that the film’s an untrammeled exercise in dingo jingoism. lts sampling of the national character, and its cross-section of Australian history in the transitional years between the immediate postwar period and the mid-Fifties, is astutely intertwined with another, parallel chronicle. Newsfront‘s titular subject is the unpretentious integrity and professional tenacity of some Australians in a slightly oddball, historically endangered line of work—the filming and production of newsreels. Since, during the years in question, live television news moved in to dominate what had once been the newsreelers’ domain, the film operates as both fond elegy and triumphant affirmation of an enduring spirit.

Just how enduring can be appreciated from the very texture of Newsfront itself. A good deal of the film consists of authentic newsreel footage from the archives, seamlessly intercut with monochrome images of Len Maguire and colleagues ostensibly getting the action on the spot. (Part of the movie is also in color, an evocative, slightly “off” palette that blends well with the sepiatoned black-and-white and suggests 1940s magazine art gone golden over the years.) That Noyce and his own colleagues do not take this legacy lightly is indicated by the extensive roll call of newsreel cinematographers in the end credits. By this, and also by a casual screening-room scene that turns mesmerizing as we realize, along with the newly naturalized Chris Hewitt, that we are witnessing a jungle warfare shot that a real-life cameraman literally died to get. That fusion of accident and artfulness, life and cinema, professional integrity and individual mortality pervades the movie, and gives it a grandeur beyond any indulgent affection for colorful anachronism.

So many stories they tell, while telling essentially one. Not surprisingly, Noyce came to narrative cinema from the documentary, and even when the shooting of newsreels is not the business at hand, his camera remains alive to his material the way a good documentarian must. Newsfront is fiction of a classical order, but Noyce seems simply to be discovering what any good working eye might. Consider the late-night, parked-car conversation between Frank Maguire and Amy McKenzie, the longtime girlfriend he’s never got round to marrying, and will presently cast off in order to make a shrewd career move. Their remarks are terse and, well, unremarkable, as our remarks often are at moments of major change in our lives. Although Frank and Amy are sitting on the same car seat, munching hot dogs and probably getting ready for casual sex, the camera can’t get them onto the same focal plane. And what immeasurably enhances the scene and its mood, what you’re likely to remember more vividly than anything else, is the nervous, professionally instinctive, and oddly moving cutaway to a lone, quite anonymous citizen bent over a beach fire nearby, while the lights of Sydney curve around the bay in the distance.

The/private story and the public, the national story, the intimate scene and the documentary context, merge smoothly at every point. In the newsreels, the new Prime Minister Menzies cries war on the Australian Communist Party, and in the film proper Len, a democrat who respects socialism as one point of view among many, becomes increasingly disassociated from his rigidly Catholic wife and their church society. (What editorializing angel ordained that Menzies, photographed for history three decades ago, should be squinting into the sun, aswarm with flies?) The Cinetone team is visibly thrilled to put together a first-rate issue on the conquest of Everest by New Zealand–born Edmund Hilary; it is only fitting that the aging head of the company should die in the exultation of the moment. (How wonderfully his involuntary nod and discreet gulping for more air become part of the triumphal rhythm of the sequence—the one we are watching and the one he is directing.)

The scenario is constructed with unobtrusive knowingness. A house-building party for Len and his then-new wife serves to disclose latent emotional tensions among members of the Cinetone family. Later, the divorced Len and his young assistant Chris travel the outback covering a road race, and at a dance Chris inadvertently gets himself a wife. A later dance provides the occasion of pairing Len up with the deserted Amy, while Len’s ex looks on. Subsequently, we find Len showing home movies to his estranged family movies of the house-building party, shot by Chris, who is now dead, and including Frank and Amy, who have been reunited on Frank’s return from America. To describe these structural rhymes is to make them sound mechanical and obvious; in the film itself they remain submerged in the flow of events, characters, years, aesthetically unifying without underscoring. The movie is always enlarging its categories, extending its frames. ln one early sequence Noyce shows us a newsreel theater—yes, a theater that existed solely to show newsreels, and that is seen here to have been well attended. Noyce has spoken of what those news films meant: “I’m sure that most people will remember the way in which the fanfare for a particular newsreel came on. ln Australia it was a laughing kookaburra on the screen and the audience would all ‘Ahh!’ throughout the theater when the newsreel theme hit. And then the way in which the melodramatic, serial-type music was used to underscore the events. And the way in which the commentator, talking in the fast, high level of energy; and sometimes, like in the English newsreels, with a very laidback, sort of casual style, this voice of God enthused over the most mundane events. And the newsreels delivered all of the visual information, or most of it, about the world, about their own country, that people could get at that time….” He shows us these people and what they are seeing. And it’s a corny item about a most unprepossessing device, the television. There’s an audience watching the TV demonstration in the newsreel; and a newsreel theater audience watching them; and here we are, watching all of them, an implicit extension of Newsfront‘s lucid, beguiling montage. Later, TV becomes a grimly present reality: “Fairy tales can come true,/lt can happen to you…” moons a superimposed period tune, as a sidewalk crowd looks at their first telly in an appliance store window; and on the telly a fairy tale, Disney’s Bambi, portrays the cinema’s most celebrated forest fire; and we cut to a non-animated forest fire where Len Maguire is still shooting the best footage anybody could get, and finding himself obsolescing (“…it can happen to you…”) in competition with a TV unit.

Newsfront has a wonderful hero in the avuncular Len Maguire (he never does seem young, and that’s part of the film’s charm, even as we are expected to pretend that he is overtaken by middle age only late in the proceedings); but there’s nothing whiny about his or the film’s attitude toward his historical fate—just as the movie is cheerfully droll about the American Presence in and pressure on their culture, their economics, and their politics, or the absurdities of “Australian identity” as the newsreelers are expected to portray it during one period in their commercial bid for survival.

Noyce draws on a glossary of movie-movie associations, not just newsreel associations, to measure the movement of history around Len. Early on, for instance, when he and Chris return from one assignment, the camera gives us our first look at the Cinetone News sign (“The Eyes and Ears of Australia”) and then executes a diagonal whip-pan down to their car pulling up at the curb: it’s like the G-men in some Forties serial returning to Headquarters following their latest bit of derring-do. The onset of modernity is signaled by the very contemporary tracking shot (a fluid crib from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) of the cab carrying Len Maguire past the newsreel moviehouse, which is going foreign/art/softcore-porn with a Brigitte Bardot movie. And all of Newsfront‘s stories—its politics, its personalities, its professional ethics—come to a head in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, which we see in newsreel black-and-white, and then suddenly in a stunningly abstract overhead color shot of an orange ball against a dazzlingly green swimming pool. But the movie’s fade—before the end credits, that is, which are absolutely part of the action—is pure celluloid corn. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way—and if you don’t like it, I’m inviting you to bite your bum!

Australia, 1978.  Directed by Phillip Noyce.  Screenplay: David Elfick and Phillip Noyce ; story by David Elfick and Philippe Mora.  Cinematography: Vincent Monton.  Editing: John Scott.  Production design: Lissa Coote ; art direction: Lawrence Eastwood; set decoration: Sally Campbell.  Costume design: Norma Moriceau.  Music: William Motzing.  Produced by David Elfick.
The players:  Bill Hunter (Len Maguire), Wendy Hughes (Amy Mackenzie), Gerard Kennedy (Frank Maguire), Chris Haywood (Chris Hewitt), John Ewart (Charlie), Don Crosby (A.G. Marwood), Angela Punch McGregor (Fay), Bryan Brown (Geoff), Tony Barry (Greasy),  John Clayton (Cliff), John Dease (Ken)

Copyright © 1982 by Richard T. Jameson

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